Saturday, August 07, 2010

Girls And Boys

Next year, for the first time ever, my entire Pre-K class will be boys. In fact, in my 9 years at Woodland Park, I've never even had more boys than girls among my oldest students. 

The progressive schools I know tend to have far more boy applicants than girls. As David Katz told me, then director of the Giddons School on Capital Hill in Seattle, "There's a prejudice that boys benefit more from alternative education than girls. Girls need this just as much." Most of the progressive kindergartens in our area have openings for girls and waiting lists for boys as they strive for a gender balance. That in mind, given Woodland Park's persistent statistical weighting toward girls, I've started to entertain the conclusion that parents see me as a good progressive teacher for girls in particular. Its a source of pride for me and one that makes sense given that I'm the father of a girl and my parenting experience will always greatly inform my interactions with children as a teacher. That said, I strive to treat each child as an individual, not a gender, and I feel that we serve boys equally well at Woodland Park.

I've always secretly rooted for gender balance, but our bylaws are silent on the subject, instead leaving enrollment up to the laws of alumnae and first-come-first-serve. The fact that we still tend to enroll more girls than boys tells me that something more than random chance is at work, but that's speculation for another day.

I once had 7 girls and 1 boy in my Pre-K class. There was one day, about two hours into our 2.5 hour Tuesday afternoon session when it dawned on me that we'd been sitting on our blue rug, mostly talking, the entire time. We'd spent our time in sustained dramatic play, making art, puzzling, problem solving, and even our "P.E." activity took place on that blue rug. It had been a great day overall, with a nice flow to it and lots of productive engagement, but I suddenly focused in on poor Sam who looked like he was about to explode. His legs were twisted tightly under his bottom, his torso tensely angled to one side, rigid with the effort it took to control his body. We finished in a flurry of full body activity that took us outside and into the gym. Sam was like a cork shot from a warm, shaken bottle of champagne. Ka-pow!

He learned a lot that year, and probably unlearned a great deal of it once he got into a kindergarten class with a few more boys.

I've known each of my Pre-K boys for the past two years, just as they've known one another. By next May, we will have spent more than half of their lives coming to school together. Like every Pre-K class, our culture is one of our own creation, unique, destined to take on a weird and spectacular shape all its own, but they are all boys and I've been thinking about what that might mean.

The other day, when the children broke off into their post circle time, freely chosen "activities," they had 4 options: gutters, tubes and balls in the gym, making lemonade at the yellow table, puzzles on the blue rug, or whatever other free-form activity they wanted to do inside or out. 

The gym looked like this:

The yellow table looked like this:

And the blue rug looked like this:

For the first 10-15 minutes of these activities, there were no girls in the gym, only one boy making lemonade, and a perfect gender balance working those puzzles. 

Is anyone surprised by this? Of course not. We all know that along the continuum of childhood preferences and behaviors, there are places where boys clump up, others where girls do, and yet others where there tends to be no gender imbalance whatsoever. I'm always careful to use the word "tend" (e.g., "Girls tend to play in groups of two or three," or "Boys tend to play in larger groups.") because it's important to do so. There are no absolutes when it comes to gender, any sentence that begins with the phrase "Boys are . . ." or "Girls are . . ." is a false one, but a classroom full of boys will be different than one dominated by girls. 

Taken as individuals, these guys are as different as Snow White's seven dwarves, but in aggregate, they are boys. Falsehoods about individual girls or boys are often truths about girls and boys in groups. I don't want to get into the specifics of what that means, or whether its a function of nature or nurture, because each one of you knows what I'm talking about, as well as all possible deviations from the norm. As a man who has lived most of his adult life in a world dominated by women, I'm not interested in perpetuating any stereotypes or gender roles, but taken in groups, 4-year-old girls will tend to take a different approach to their learning than their 4-year-old boy classmates.

I know a 13-year-old girl who has insisted she is a boy since she was two. I know a boy who quit ballet because they wouldn't let him wear a tutu. I know a woman with muscled arms the size of my thighs. I know a man who can kiss a boo-boo and make it all better. I reject many "masculine" traits and embrace many that are "feminine." You do too. 

That's because I am me and you are you.

Interestingly, the overall 3-5 class for next year is gender balanced, meaning that my Pre-K group a year from now goes back to being girl-heavy, including several girls who turn 5 before Christmas. That will also be interesting.

The experience of teaching an all boy class is one toward which I'm looking forward. I'm not making any special preparations, other than perhaps mental ones, because the Pre-K curriculum is really one the children and I make up together as we go along. That said, I doubt we will have many days during which we spend the entire time on the blue rug and I suspect our year-end play will not include many "pink and purple" characters. But at the same time, I don't want to do anything that will preclude that either.

What I do know is that come next May, I'll be a better teacher.

I've written a few other less rambling posts on "gender" if you're interested:

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Play for Life said...

Hmm ... I can see you moving on from glue guns, hammers and hand drills to concreting, nail guns and chainsaws ... you know boys and their toys and all that jazz! I'd say have fun with it Tom but I already know you plan on doing just that!
Donna :) :)

Jason, as himself said...

You are a wise, wise man! There are so many parts of this post that I would like to save and quote later. Thank you for the insight and truth in this post.

Cathy @ NurtureStore said...

I'm wondering if you would go with a boys group really, really wanting to do 'boys' stuff (you know what I mean with this '')and so focus on their lead, or whether you would try to balance this with more lemonade making. Interesting to ponder how much we try to guide.

Let the Children Play said...

Interesting post Tom - especially the part about progressive education and boys. We often have the comment that "my boy would love this kind of preschool" but then wonder if a preschool with less structure and an indoor/outdoor program might not be the way to go because they would spend too much time playing outside instead of learning. And then we have boys arrive that haven't fitted into a more formalised preschool environment and thrive in ours - but usually we end up pretty even.

Unknown said...

I love observing the dynamics. I started one year with 18b+1g, and had 19b+1g by the end. A lot of my pre-conceived assumptions about having a boy heavy class were challenged that year, so you never know. I think it will be a fun experience for you and the boys. Enjoy it! =)

Kristin @ Intrepid Murmurings said...

Man, those balls and gutter tunnels look awesome to me, I'd be all over that! I've used gutters for water play before but love the indoor useage!

And hey, I know David! Miss him! I taught K at Giddens for a year and met so many great folks there!

I do think people sometimes think boys "need" private school (or a certain kind of approach, smaller class sizes, etc) since they more obviously struggle with the standard type of teaching/classroom, while the girls suffer more silently. Or something like that? Great thought provoking post!

Louise at Tales from the Sandpit said...

After enjoying your comments on a couple of other blogs I visit, I have finally gotten time to visit yours - it'll be interesting to see how your boys unfold with no girls at all around. I'm sure you will enjoy the journey.

pamela Wallberg said...

Our 4's group is primarily boys - but not all boys, thanks to the two girl hold-outs! -'s tough. But, at the same time, a bit exciting. Boys seem to feed off of each others energy in a slightly different way than girls do...good luck for the challenges ahead!

Anonymous said...

I have always (in 10 years of teaching nursery -3-4 year olds) had more boys than girls - this year I have 19 boys & 7 girls. Next year I am going to have a straight split of 13 each & I can't wait to see how this will change my teaching process, or indeed, should I say IF it will change my teaching process. Wacth this space to see what happens...